James Macmillan interviewed after première at St Aloysius

Senior and junior choirs from ten Jesuit schools joined together this weekend to sing the music for the liturgies in St Aloysius Church, Glasgow, marking the beginning of the celebrations for the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the martyrdom of St John Ogilvie SJ. On Saturday the 7th March, the senior students sang the Mozart Vespers with orchestra in a church full of parishioners and visitors. On Sunday 8th of March, the junior choirs took their turn singing for the Parish Mass; a special Votive Mass of St John Ogilvie. During the Communion, the choir sang a new composition by James MacMillan. We had the chance to interview him after the Mass at the reception in St Aloysius College.

Could you tell us something about the Ave Verum Corpus that you wrote for these celebrations?

I knew that the celebrations for John Ogilvie were taking place here and I have a long association with the school, and I used to be a parishioner here when I first moved to Glasgow. The parish has always had a strong musical tradition with a choir at the 12noon Sunday Mass, and they’ve asked me to write for their choral groups in the past. The parish asked me about the texts that I wanted to use, whether I wanted to write for the Vespers or for the Mass and we eventually settled on a text very much associated with the Eucharist, the Ave Verum Corpus. I know it’s been a huge undertaking for the school to put all of this together, but to commission a piece is big step into the unknown as you can never be sure what you’re going to get. 

Your children have been educated at St Aloysius College here in Glasgow, could you tell us something about your experience of Jesuit education?

I was delighted over the years that I was involved in the school to see our children grow in the Jesuit charism. My wife and I are lay Dominicans, and so it’s been very beneficial for us, personally, to see the different charisms and expressions of the Catholic Church. But the idea of doing things For the Greater Glory of God (AMDG) which so saturates the life of the school is extremely impressive and it leaves its mark in many unknown and unexpected ways. My children have benefited greatly from their time here and they’ll never forget the formation that they’ve received.

Your new composition was extremely beautiful, and Jesuits have a long tradition of producing music for the liturgy. Do you feel this strong musical tradition is still important?

The Church, and indeed the churches, grapple with the question of music in worship since the earliest days and there have been entire controversies and reformations over the place and role of music within the Church. It’s still here now; Catholics even argue among themselves about the importance of music in the liturgy. Of course the Second Vatican Council has given us a great legacy of thinking on the matter, but the anxiety goes right back to the beginning. Music is central to what it means to be a worshipping community, and it takes an awful lot of thought. Sometimes we get it wrong, but sometimes we get it wonderfully and beautifully right. We should never forget that at the centre of musical heritage, but also of our own spiritual and liturgical heritage is a huge wealth of sacred music, and particularly chant. Chant is the DNA that runs through so much of our music, not just liturgical music, but all of our music. Moreover, there’s a huge interest in chant, even from secular musicians and musicians from other faith traditions. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council it’s important not to loose sight of that, perhaps learning from our Protestant brothers and sisters about how to adapt chant to the vernacular. It’s also very important to value the richness of the ancient languages of the Church, Greek and Latin. So there’s a multiplicity of ways that we can move forwards, but at the core, because we’re Catholics, tradition and a love of the tradition has to animate what we do. This requires a certain amount of activism on our part, but it’s vital because the liturgy needs music, the liturgy needs good music, and the liturgy needs Catholic music.

This weekend has begun the celebrations of St John Ogilvie SJ. What do you feel is his legacy?

When John Ogilvie was canonised I was a teenager and still at school, and I remember that there was some amazement that we’d been catapulted into the Catholic limelight. He was a reformation figure that many people had ignored for one reason or another, but when you’re Canonised, you can’t be ignored anymore. Suddenly here was John Ogilvie, the Catholic Church in Scotland, and the links between Scotland and Rome on centre stage. Many of our fellow citizens had to reengage with the  Catholic community in Scotland on our own terms: we had a story to tell and it hadn’t really ever been told. So it was the beginning of something very wonderful in Scotland as Catholics became more visible, less tribal and less ghettoised than they were, even as late as the 1970s. I think John Ogilvie’s canonisation and his central presence in the story and life of Catholicism in Scotland had something to do with that. I’m particularly delighted that this weekend sees, as well as all of the Catholic liturgies and the concerts, an ecumenical prayer service here in St Aloysius, where the Jesuits engage with Christians of other denominations, to celebrate the life of St John Ogilvie. Bringing Christians from different traditions to celebrate his life and example is a great legacy, and certainly something that would not have happened thirty or forty years ago.